“Get it straight buster – I’m not here to say Please, I’m here to tell you what to do and if self-preservation is an instinct you possess you’d better f***ing do it and do it quick.”- The Wolf, Pulp Fiction

Hm, might not want to try this at work, but it’s inspiring, Mr. Tarantino….

In a previous article I mentioned the requirement for top management to engage and motivate employees to invest themselves in the business in a situation of complete flux, restructuring, which may or may not make entire lines of today’s work obsolete.

If you decide to embark on a major change programme, if technology starts becoming part of your workflow, you will require “ressources”, in this case, this means people, who know the business and who may become key to making your project a success. These “ressources”, however, are not just numbers in your planning tool and it might come as a surprise that not everyone will jump through hoops to make change happen.

Agile structures and automation can create insecurity

People need orientation and becoming “agile” and introducing technology or automated processes creates insecurity around jobs, accuracy of work, and their in their own value to the business.

People in an organisation position themselves against others by the current status quo: job titles, salary, benefits, holidays, information rights – these are based often on job descriptions and tenure. Sounds like old economy? It is….  but it still is reality in a vast majority of companies.

Today… of course we want people to work differently… deliver on their day job (see job description) as well as contribute to project A, B, C, at any given time, be exposed to tools they never used, use and display different skills and adapt to a very different pace at work with much less predictability in planning, less regularity, swapping roles and fields of activity with high frequency – become “agile”, you know.

We may ask people to contribute to (agile, this is turning into buzzword bingo, I know) development projects and shape the company’s digital future, processes, structure, possibly field of activity through their work, who so far have not had any decision-making-power whatsoever.

The fact they didn’t have that power should come as no surprise in a more or less top-down world, but it’s worth: their managers would not have been empowered either…. at least not to the same extent as is now required.

Why is this difficult when you’re working on reshaping the business for the digital world?

I see different issues:

1. New skill-set requirement

In agile (software) development processes, which follow a certain pattern, commitment and decision-making is required not only from the Product Owner from a technical perspective, but also very much so from the “content owner” and his or her staff. These people have business knowledge and are now being involved in reshaping the business.

New processes, methods of working and doing business are being developed in highly effective, if personnel consuming workshops, things happen fast, new tools are being used widely (Jira, Confluence, PM Software, you name it), concepts are being derived from blue sky thinking, prototyping commences quickly, results are being seen, adjustments are being made – and things change fast. Everyone starts talking in technical terms, as an example: people who have used data in the past now speak about data models and start understanding SQL.

All in all that’s pretty cool, I think.

However, in a world where decision-making was always very clearly defined and was situated more or less solely at the top of an organisation, you are now asking “normal” employees to take on responsibility to a much larger degree, you ask them to display and tap into a different skill set than they needed to use previously (and they weren’t recruited for that).

Some people can’t just dig out analytical, conceptual thinking, a technological understanding and a highly structured way of communicating with developers or become process designers. And they should not feel less valuable for it, it’s not their fault. They must not be forgotten, it is them who continue doing the line jobs whilst everything else is in flux.

2. “This is not my job”

Whilst some people may rise to the callenge and love being exposed to different tasks, others might shy away from these “special projects”. They will retreat to their job description and current salary and say they weren’t hired to do “project work” and that they’re not being paid for it. This can be a display of insecurity, if so, try to encourage! It can, however also be an display of distancing oneself from the business. I question if it is possible to manage these people out of that corner and into motivated, flexible project contributors, they are not agents for change, they are resistant to it. Personally, I doubt that you want these people involved in what is shaping the future of your business.

You might want to test if you can pull them out of their corner and make them part of a new structure and get them to accept new ways of working, but that is a bit further down the line.

3. “What’s in it for me?”

Most employees are motivated by compensation. The second biggest motivator is career development, which over time leads to, correct, more money. A lot of people expect extra compensation, a bonus, a new job when they engage in project work, which in a business is often communicated as introducing groundbreaking change in a company. So people asked to contribute feel their work is more valuable than the line work they have been doing so far and they request to see what’s in it for them if it’s so important for the company.

Some “how to” thoughts on projects and people:

So, here you are, you have decided you need to change the way you go about developing your company further. And, you will need people to help you do it:

0. Breathe

Risk is you’re juggling lots of balls, everything is new for you, you sometimes feel like a headless chicken… make sure you take time to breathe and clear your head. Managing this is tough, and sometimes it is unnerving to deal with people and their issues. Yup…. but it’s unavoidable if this is to go right… just make sure you treat yourself well enough to then also treat others correctly.

1. Assess your culture

Is it normal for people across the business to contribute to important developments in the business? Are their views valued and their participation encouraged? If this is not the case, consider how you can explain why this is now changing and why you seek their input now. Expect people you have not interacted with or just given orders to to be sceptical. Expect people to come to you for pay rises or job spec changes.

2. Manage expectations about compensation

Communicate clearly what people participating in this process may expect in terms of additional compensation. If it is nothing, if you believe you can expect this as part of their normal jobs: say so.

3. Know your people:

It might seem like an obvious one, but you should know your people, you should know their skill set in their current job, you should know their degree of commitment to the business, their previous experiences, how they express themselves verbally, how quickly they grasp new stuff, how structured or maybe full on creative they are. If you don’t, do a skill-set analysis ahead of staffing your projects. These people are important, they will help scope your new, at least partly digitalised business. Spend some time with them, you will need to rely on them.

4. Identify the gaps:

It is most likely that you will not have all the people power you require to go through with such a big transformation in-house. Identify early what skills you’re missing, where you need them when (as well as for how long) and decide on whether to hire and train or whether to bring in consultants (who also require training), it is most likely you’ll use a mix of both. An article on consultants and managing this change will follow.

5. Delegate authority properly – define borders

Once someone is responsible for a whole project, or even a workstream, an Epic, for defining an API, whatever it may be: they are! You need to trust them and give them the required freedom to deliver results, and it is important to be straight to them that you will hold them accountable for results.

Having said that: this environment can get very pressurised and since all you’re doing is “new” there are limited best practice samples one can gain back-up from, so you need to offer yourself as back-up. Do not leave people alone, it is ok not to know which option to choose from time to time, be available – and ensure you are trusted enough so that people feel it is ok to come to you when they have hit a wall.

6. Project v. Line Targets

Always a fun one. But the rift might get more significant in this situation. Consult team leads and others on realistic line targets. If you take away a third of the FTEs from a business unit for conceptualisation, testing, protoyping, you can’t expect the same output. Seems an obvious one. But isn’t. Unrealistic expectations will lead to pressure build, frustration and feelings of failure, probably in exactly those employees you most rely on.

7. Don’t be a “Steering Committee Only” Manager

Join a workstream. Participate actively. Not as a leader, just as a project contributor, go through the motions, understand what the actual work is like, don’t become a “steering committee only” manager. Just a thought…

I know a lot of the above sounds absolutely normal, but it isn’t. Experience shows that you will get suboptimal results when your people aren’t motivated or if they are scared. Experience also shows that once something goes wrong on the people level, much management time is needed to either make things right or manage someone out of the organisation.

While writing this, a song kept popping into my head: here is my reference back to the “New Radicals”: “You only get what you give”, – true, and a good pick-me-up song for a workshop break!